Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What do conservative & liberal mean?

Lacy Underalls of dreary old Manhattan continues the discussion of whether or not Obama is a conservative. This email is well worth a read. I'll digest myself (I mean, I will read the email and think about it; I will not somehow transfer my body to my intestinal tract) and respond later today:

I'm going to write an extended response to your two recent posts, "Is Obama Conservative?" and "Liberals Should be Happy they Won and Shut Up," because I've been thinking a lot lately about both of these topics. I (think) I agree with the fundamental premise of both of your arguments, but I have some comments that might reveal that either (a) I actually disagree with you more than I thought or (b) your argument is more nuanced than you presented in the blog posts.
First, is Obama conservative? I think the reason there is so much controversy about this in the chattering class of American politics is because there are at least seven definitions of what it means to be a liberal or conservative. Here they are, with comments on Obama for each.
(1) Partisan short form: Democrat equals liberal and Republican equals conservative. Democrats are underwritten by a collection of liberal interests (unions, pro-choice groups, etc.) and conservatives are underwritten by a different set of interests (business, churhces, pro-life groups, etc.) Clearly, Obama is a liberal.
(2) The 18th and 19th century European divides: This is where the classical definitions come from for the three ideologies of conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. Conseravtism is rooted in aristocracy/monarcy and a respect for a god-given (or otherwise presupposed) order which emphasizes traditional institutions, culture, and authority. Liberalism is rooted in the enlightenment values of the free market, individual liberty, merit as determining place, and equality of opportunity. Socialism is rooted in the values of equality of material wealth, public ownership of economic capacity, and the minimization of risk to the individual. Only the fringes of modern American politics touch this conservatism or socialism, although plenty of people have sympathies toward one or the other on individual issues. Obama is certainly a liberal in this paradigm, with perhaps occasional sympathies toward socialism.
(3) Comparison to America, circa 1933-1994: this is the familiar arrangement of how people talk about American politics in the 20th century. Liberals supported the use of the state to redistribute income generated by a more-progressive income tax through significant entitilement programs (SS, Medicare) and means-tested poverty programs (AFDC, etc.), sought to manage the economy through sector-based underwriting (farm subsidies), protectionist tariffs, or even straight socialistic policies (price controls), and encouraged social policies that expanded certain rights and liberties of the individual (atheist rights, non-patriot rights, civil rights, abortion rights) and the defendant (4th-8th amendment, etc.), including the expansion of the power of the federal government to legislative such things, while contraining the power of the indivudal on other dimensions in search of equality of outcome (fairness doctrine, campaign finance reform, etc) . Conservatives generally opposed the expansion of the redistirbutive state (tax cuts, ending means-tested redistribution), wished to minimze government management of the economy (end subsidies, allow free-choice in farming), sought to cut taxes, believed the power of the federal government should not be expanded as much at the expense of state authority, sought tougher measures against crime, preferenced the will of the community over the individual in some cases (pornography, anti-speech codes, etc.) and certain rights of hte individual (2nd amendment). Both liberals and conservatives were generally for a strong, active American foreign policy, although doves on both sides (isolationist on the right, pacificst on the left) dissented. The remarkable thing about this arrangement was that it did not intersect with the political parties particularly well. The democratic party contained both the most liberal and conservative elements, with 1/3 of democrats more conservative than 9 out of 10 republicans. And a significant number of Republicans (Rockefellar, etc.) more liberal than most democrats. Where is Obama here? He'd almost certainly be a moderate, maybe like Jack Kennedy? It's impossible for me to think he's a "big government liberal," and he doesn't seem to want to rock the boat on social issues. He's for tax cuts, so he can't be a Ted Kennedy / Walter Mondale / Mike Dukakis type, right?
(4) Comparison to Democratic Party and GOP, circa 1995-2001: this is the post-big governemnt era, when Clinton is yanked rightward by Gingrich and both promote a similar set of core economic policies: tax cuts, reduced federal spending, balanced budgets, free trade, continued support for entitilements but not means-tested redistribution. On any number of social policies (abortion, race, dealth penalty, etc.), the gulf between liberals and conservatives remains wide. The parties come back into synchronization as the southern conservatives are almost completely purged from the democratic party and the northeastern liberals reduced in the GOP. Obama is clearly a liberal in this view. Unequivocably.
(5) Comparsion to GOP and Democratic Party, circa Bush Presidency post-2001: I think this familiar enough to dispense with quickly: conservatives are increasingly authoritarian, with a focus on aggressvie foreign policy, presidential power, tax cuts, and federal spending on economic issues and defense/security, at the expense of former libertarian values. Liberals find their libertarian voices on many issues, support less-agressive (but still agressive!) foreign policy, reduced presidential power, and somewhat more redistribution than during Clinton era. Cross party dissenters are not frequent, but center around the return of the conservaitve dems (blue dogs) and the secular libertarian republicans (A. Sullivan, etc.). Obama is clearly a liberal.
(6) Comparison to modern Europe: Also very familiar: Eurpoean liberals support a large redistributive state funded through higher income or VAT taxes, consolidation of the continent through international institutions (EU, etc.), and generally moderate social policies. Conservatives tend to mix moderate economic policies with conservative social polices (EU, immigration, etc.). I suppose Obama is a moderate in this scheme. No matter how much your favorite socialist college prof (Alan Cafruny) might wish it, the U.S. ain't Europe.
(7) Temperment and style: This is the Burkean dimension that Andrew Sullivan seems to find Obama a conservative on. The idea is that a conservative is generally skeptical about the ability of humans to succesfully order society through government, and thus any tearing down of the existing order is cause for concern or, if it absolutely must be done (french revolution), regret. Change should be incremental and measured. Liberals in this view, I suppose, are the french revolutionaries --- those who know the existing institutioanl order must be destroyed, but are either don't think or don't care about what is to replace it. Placed on a template of modern American politics, I suppose most peole are conservatives (including Obama), but you now and then get the whiff of the french revolution from extremists on both sides (in Congress, say, Pete Stark on the left and Tom Coburn on the right).
So yes, I think Obama is a liberal. But what it means to be a liberal is purely contextual. Modern small-government, free-market conservatives are classical liberals, which is still in the modern world the most commonly used meaning of the term (American liberals in England are in the Labor party, not the liberal party). And I think you try to reduced liberalism and conservatism to something very simple when you say a definition must include "Reagan, Gingrich, and Bush." That seems like a partisan shortcut to me. I would never try to put Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Taft, and Nelson Rockefellar in the same "conservative" definition, even though all of them were Republicans and all of them were coservative in at least one of the senses above (temperament, European, c.1933-1994, comparison to modern europe; respectively). If you want to bunch such people together, just do it the way they were actually bunched: by party. Otherwise, it's like trying to put Eugene McCarthy / Hubert Humphrey in the same ideology as Bobby Byrd / Fritz Hollings in 1960. Sure, they were in the same party, but they were on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
And I think you need to be more nuanced about the difference between social and fiscal policy. On social positions such as abortions, the parties are a good shortcut since the end of the civil rights movement. But on fiscal issues, I don't think it's worth even trying to divide them that way. Nixon was clearly the most willing to undertake socialistic economic policies (price controls for god's sakes!), and Clinton post-1995 is so far to the right of Bush 43 that's it's a joke. I don't know if this is true for you, but I do see it in a lot of my liberal friends: they believe the Bush/GOP is so inherently evil that any idea supported by the GOP is on its face bad and any idea supported by the democrats is good. That may or may not be true, but it makes people poor readers of history, because the dems and the GOP are not monolithic, nor are the individuals in the parties all orthodoxic conservaitves and liberals. You'll never shoehorn B. Clinton (or Nixon or Rockefellar. etc.) successfully into a monolithic liberal ideology (unless you reduce it to "liberal supreme court appointeees") because the dude wasn't a liberal or a conservaitve all the time: he had a strong mix of policies that ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other (he tried to build a universal single-payer health care plan, but he ended AFDC! He wanted a more-proressive income tax but he signed NAFTA and fired missiles at one of our allies to attack terrorists!)
Anway, on to the second post, "liberals Should be Happy they Won and Shut Up." Here I couldn't agree more, in principle. When you win an election, you can govern how ever the heck you want. Furthermore, if the Democrat candidate wins election, he should govern as a Democrat, at least until he sees that the policies are not as popular as the election indicated (and arguably even after that). It's obvious that the average voter this year is upset about any number of things: the Iraq war or Bush's foreign policy more generally, the ecnoomic downturn, GOP fatigue, the Supreme Court, etc. And I am sympathetic to the view that this election is almost totally retrospective, a negative referendum on the GOP over the last four years, without a whole lot of comment on absolute merit of the liberal alternative (instead, just a final verdict on the relative merit of the liberal alternative to Bushism). But even under those constrained conditions, Obama should not feel contrained as to putting forth a positive program. In fact, that might be his biggest challenge (and one I think he's been largely sucessful at meeting in the campaign): finding a way to translate the relative popularity of his party vis a vis Bushism into an absolute popularity based on policy positions. And look, no matter what anyone tells you, it's not currently 1932, when FDR could just shut his mouth and win the election on his "I'm a Christian and a Democrat" message. Obama has a structural advantage, but if he had campaigned without a positive policy platform (instead just critiquing Bush), he wouldn't win. So clearly, you are right on this count.
Still, I have to give Gerson something of the benefit of the doubt here, because I think you are setting up a straw man. I agree with him that Obama is going to have a difficult poltical task, because the liberal policies that are winning Obama votes are not the liberal policies that will represent the median of the Democratic congressional party. This is easy to prove mathematically: the average democrat in Congress is the median voter among 200+ people, many of whom came from significantly democratic districts. Obama's campaign is aiming to win the median voter in the nation. So, in theory, Obama's stated policy prefernces as a presidential candidate are to the right of the congressional democrats. And this is, in fact, almost certainly true, as it has been for most presidents. On any number of issues (teacher's unions, gay marraige, taxes, NAFTA, Iraq, FISA, race, abortion, court nominees, etc), his rhetoric is far more centrist than the median House democrat. So I think he does face challenges there. Furthermore, he has to balance something we don't: releection in 2012 and helping his party in 2010 and 2014. Whatever he beleives in his heart, it has already been tempered by the wonderful electoral system of democracy, in which "representation" seems like just a theory, until you actually need to be re-elected. Obama needs to deliver on his policy promises, and to do that he needs power in DC. To build power he needs to start winning big early (a la Bush 2001 and Kennedy 1961; contra Clinton 1993), so I expect some slam-dunks this spring. Slam-dunks are usually not that radical. I expect Obama to be somewhat cautious, and I expect him to have the ire of many a congressional democrat who wished he was more liberal and agressive in 2009.
A couple of minor points:
(A) I agree about 1994 being about a lot of structural features of American politics. But it was also about Clinton. He was a disaster in terms of presidential-congressional relations in his first two years, and his misunderstanding of where power lies in DC was epic. And I think you are dangerously bordering on the same mistake: Obama will be inherently powerful in DC next year, but there's no way he can simply ignore the congressional dems on domestic policy. He can have all the tax plans, health care plans, and quacking-quackeroo plans he wants (sorry, my daugter is a Dr. Suess nut), but it don't mean shit on the Hill. You saw the 3-page presidential bailout bill become 450. Just wait until Obama sends over his plan for going "line by line through the budget and cutting things." Mark my words: that document gets thrown in the garbage when it reaches the House of Representatives. He will have to bargain with them, and he will even at times have to go the Clintonian "third-way" and make the liberal dems a counterpoint to the GOP, placing himself in the middle.
(B) I'll make one long-shot prediction: the congressional dems go for card-count neutrality in union election early on this spring, and Obama is less than thrilled. It's a tough policy to sell (ending secret-ballot elections), it is easy to demogogue, it reeks of old-school liberalism, and plenty of dems will be against it (I saw a Eugene McCarthy op-ed against it recently!) But the unions want it. I could see this as being an early showdown Obama wants to aviod, a la gays in the military in 1993. I'm fascinate to see how he handles it.
(C) Where's the love for the Senate and House elections? Forget the presidency, this is where it's at! Imagine if McConnell loses in KY, unbelievable! Also, Shays looks like he's toast in Connecticut, meaning that the New England House membership, which was majority republican as recently as 1966, will have zero GOP members. it's also ominmous to note that the dem structural advantage this year (33 Class II elections and 2 Class I special elections with 23 GOP seats and 12 Dem seats) gets reversed in 2012 (only 9 GOP and 24 Dem Class I seats right nwo). The first term is the place to make your legacy, Senator!